Heston Rifle/Varistor
When a friend told me that there were some good bands coming out of Queens, I was a bit skeptical. For as much as she'd deride me for my Jersey heritage -- Bon Jovi, Bruce, et fucking al. -- what could Queens offer? I imagined a stage full of hotpants and haircuts and goofy guitars shaped like half of the Van Halen logo. Turns out Queens does have some decent musicians playing around, everything from good, solid sons of Westerberg to several lively grind-core bands, even a Lou Barlow type popping up every once in a while.
Earlier this year, at Brownies. Heston Rifle followed John Vanderslice and blew the Seattle wonderkids off the stage. Hopefully some of the people who had come to see the pretty-boy and his guitar stuck around to enjoy some music with more guts. Heston Rifle is a five-piece: two guitars, bass, drums, violin -- Bill Oxios, Brian Gallagher, Jerry Chierchio, Erik D. and Vicki Pilato, respectively. They're a noisy band, but their noise is not accidental. It's not discord to disguise lack of talent. They're not avant-garde just because they're really musical fuckwits.
They're not avant-garde at all, actually, though they've inherited plenty from that tradition. They don't plod along like an academic noise band. Heston Rifle is a grinding and scraping power, more juggernaut than monolith. They are not the children of math rock, but rather cousins seeded from the same grandfather's sac and taken to an entirely different level. Everyone can and does recite the Slint mantra, but Heston Rifle is more Bastro than Slint, and then more Bitch Magnet than Bastro, and somewhere in there, more Missing Foundation than Bitch Magnet. Maybe all of those guys, but with a little bit more rhythm, a little more step in their stride. They zip along at a nice pace while the thunder crashes down around them.
That violin gets me, suggests a soundtrack to a movie made by a psychotic unaware of his own psychosis. Pilato creates an audio motif, sometimes from just a few simple notes, and stitches everything together in a somber manner that's often in contrast to the surrounding whirlwind. She provides a solidity, a concreteness to the noise. And then the scraping bass, blown out, hypnotizing and jarring. Chierchio plays as if he's in a hardcore band--not so much for the pace, but in that his bass is not subservient to the guitars. The drums pound away, Erik D. somehow pulling a unique sound from the same old drum kit. But it's the contradiction between the two guitars that constitutes the core of the band's sound. Gallagher stands tall, generally in place, concentrating on controlling the strings, while Oxios, crouched a bit, bops wild, his hands ultimately a blur. That's not to discount the contributions of the other three pieces. Without the full ensemble, you'd be watching two men playing with their amps and pedals.
Heston Rifle's greatest strength is the ability to build tension. They've got some jazz tucked away in that noise: the music isn't as linear as one first assumes. Many of the songs are cast out slowly, methodically, and then eventually loop back around to catch you like baitfish in a seine. Your guard was down, and when you least expected it, the power's been switched on and your nerves take a beating.
The band has a 30-minute, four-song EP entitled 20 Strings, released on their own Inner Flight record label. They have a split coming with the Feud, and they're currently working on a full-length album. The difference between the recorded band and the live band is significant, but not so much that familiarity with one jeopardizes enjoyment of the other. Both have the same energy and the same powerful presence, but the EP features more vocals and more samples. Live, they don't employ vocals very much, which is fine, as they're plenty strong to hold the room without them, and I don't think I've ever heard them use a single sample onstage. With the power and precision of the live show, one imagines that vocals and samples would be a distraction. On the EP, they're fine: a bit distorted, fuzzboxed, fine.
My second time seeing Heston Rifle -- Under Acme in March -- they were supported by Varistor, another Queens band. Actually, "band" may be a bit grandiose, as it's two guys: Patrick Walsh singing and playing guitar and Dan Darragh on drums. Once a traditional rock trio, they recently stopped looking for a bassist to fill in the lineup--their previous was Heston Rifle's Brian Gallagher -- and, much as they suspected, I think they're strong enough that you don't miss the other four strings.
While the members of both bands hold much of the same musical background in common, Varistor is an altogether different band from Heston Rifle. Walsh is one of the aforementioned sons of Westerberg, which naturally brings you back to Alex Chilton, but he's also got a Joe Cocker quality to his vocals. A bit of Matthew Sweet, too, but with more balls. I suspect he's one of those guys who has played guitar his whole life, played along with Tim note-for-note until he got it right and then slowly began writing his own songs. Listening to Varistor, even in this stripped-down form, I thought of Das Damen, Die Kreuzen and all those other bands from way back that didn't keep their promises. I see Walsh up there, slapping his guitar, alone with a drummer, picking up where those guys left off years ago. In a good way, of course. The songs are refreshing and even innovative at times, not at all revisiting the tired turf suggested by the musical pedigree.
With all the classic rock revival bands making headlines -- oh, they'll be as stale as day-old Pabst in two months' time, if they're not already -- I was happy to see bands play what I consider to be the real child of old-school rock 'n' roll. Samiam and the Replacements. Magnolias without the whining. I was glad to see this rock 'n' roll survive. It's the same place Latimer was coming from -- remember Latimer? -- they tried, they tried, but they ultimately failed. Varistor, so far, even without a bass, is well along the way to succeeding.
So two really good bands, both from Queens, or mostly from Queens. One a powerhouse of noise, the other some solid, smart-guy rock 'n' roll. I've since apologized to my friend for doubting her borough. I apologized for that and Bon Jovi.